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Why Privacy Advocates Should Thank YouPorn for Ending "History Sniffing"

As the FTC begins its do not track online privacy effort, advertisers can blame YouPorn for bringing an end to "history sniffing." This is the practice -- used by web ad networks such as Interclick -- of checking your browser's history to see where you've been even if you've blocked cookies. Advertisers do this to better target their ads; YouPorn was doing it to see what other porn sites its visitors had been to.

Two California men sued YouPorn alleging that history sniffing is a privacy violation, and the FTC has added history sniffing to its list of things it wants stopped:

At an IAPP privacy seminar on Tuesday, David Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said that the FTC has been meeting with browser companies to make sure this security bug is squashed. Chrome and Safari had previously fixed the history sniffing flaw. Mozilla has a fix coming in the next version of Firefox. Microsoft's Internet Explorer is the last major browser in which history sniffing can still occur if you don't change your browser's default settings.
Interclick is also being sued by Sonal Bose, a Manhattan woman who had taken steps to block cookies on her computer but despite that found a "flash cookie" from Interclick on her machine, tracking her browser history. (Cookies are small files that web sites leave on your hard drive to indicate that you've been there before.)

Google, Facebook, Adzilla, Netflix, Quantcast and Clearspring have all recently settled online privacy suits. The sniffing issue -- and YouPorn's role in it -- came to a head following the publication of an obscure academic study titled, "An Empirical Study of Privacy-Violating Information Flows in JavaScript Web Applications." It listed dozens of sites that tracked users' histories (click image to enlarge), among them the investment site Morningstar, the conservative news site NewsMax, and the sports site HoopsWorld.

The new litigation, the FTC's moves and the settlements all suggest that subverting consumers' attempts to browse the web anonymously is no longer an acceptable business practice. Whether advertisers will be able to resist the temptation to do it, however, is another story. History shows that, generally, advertisers are a terrible guardian of consumers' private information.